Addicted to News in the Age of Trump

My name is Ian, and I’m addicted to reading news on the internet.

Every so often I step back and try to identify the bad habit or activity that’s sucking up the largest portion of my time.  Past culprits have included:


The point of this exercise is to track which habits are distracting you from achieving your goals (i.e., the stuff you really want to get done) and either eliminate them entirely or severely limit them so they’re not constantly zapping your time.  And over the past few months my biggest time waster by far has been internet news.

How did this happen?  At this time last year I barely paid attention to news aside from glancing at headlines or chatting with friends.  Now I endlessly click on Twitter posts and have five tabs open at once of things to read later, and if I come across some new scandal or story I feel the irrepressible need to check it out AT THAT EXACT MOMENT regardless of what else I have on my To-Do list that day.

These distraction sessions (which can last anywhere between five minutes and two hours) are best categorized by a state of restlessness, a loss of control over my daily plan, the excessive need to read more and MORE news, and eye strain from not looking away from the computer or phone screen (as opposed to my regular work time when I make a habit of frequently looking away from the screen).  I can feel my body chemistry altering to suit this new, highly anxious state, and it’s not a pleasant feeling at all.

 

How Did This Happen???

 

 

Like a lot of people out there my news addiction started in the months leading up to the election, where the media circus surrounding Donald Trump grew from occasional side story (“He doesn’t really have a chance, does he?”) to expository shitshow (“Oh man, I can’t believe what stupid/racist/irresponsible/otherwise awful thing he’s done now!”).

Trump-centric news coverage (especially after the inauguration) seems to strike two different but similar cords in me.  First, it appeals to that sense of rubbernecking fascination we all have when passing car accidents on the side of the highway: we see something awful that doesn’t affect us directly and want to know the extent of the damage.  In my case, after being cataclysmically shocked by Trump’s victory (this Anna Akana video sums up my reaction pretty well), I felt driven by an obsessive need to know how this possibly could have happened—how did such a large percentage of the country possibly come to the conclusion that voting for Trump was a good idea?  This search led me to several dark and often white supremacist corners of the internet that left me feeling shaken and unclean, so I’ll spare you the grimy details—instead, here’s a NY Times article that explains the phenomenon of Trump supporters better than any I’ve seen.

Secondly comes the more pressing (albeit less frequent) fear that this new course of politics will make it even more difficult for me and all the other Day Jobbing creative-but-not-yet-established young people out there to live the lives we want to lead and make our goals a reality.  I say this because Trump’s policies have consistently swayed in favor of the middle-class majority who work 40-hour a week jobs in a mid- to highly marketable skill area and receive health insurance through their employers—in short, people who don’t live the kind of life I do, or that the majority of people out there in Day Job Land do.

Of particular (though largely symbolic) distress has been Trump’s plan to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which, though its total budget is already $19.5 million lower than it was in 2010, sent a clear message that the new administration is uninterested in providing public funds for creative endeavors, thus implying that they see creative endeavors as worthless.

A world without art is a frightening one to me for lots of reasons, not least because art encourages critical and creative thinking, but also because art makes the world we live in more beautiful, interesting, thought-provoking, and fun.  The more obstacles artists have preventing them from making art, the less art’s going to get made and the blander a world we’re going to be left with.  That’s not the kind of world I want to live in.

Trump’s proposed slashing of tax deductions useful for those who run independent businesses (including home office and employee deductions) have sent a similar message: if you’re a young person and want to start your own business or creative endeavor, the new administration doesn’t think you deserve any help.  This translates to creating a culture where striking out on your own isn’t valued, since the government’s unwilling to make it easier for people to step outside the mainstream and build something new.  In place of an entrepreneurial spirit, the implied path for young people seems to be the one we’ve been hearing implicitly all along: take out a bunch of loans to go to college, get a stable job, work 40 hours a week doing something you don’t necessarily like, repeat this for forty years, and forget about whatever else you wanted to do.

Sad.

Finally and most pressingly has been the Republican party’s attempts to eliminate Obamacare, particularly as it provides lower-income people with help paying for health care.  This measure seems primarily aimed at reducing benefits for people that the Right has demonized as an uneducated mooching lower-class, but once again it has the unfortunate side effect of making it more difficult for creative and entrepreneurial young people to strike out on their own because they’re going to be beholden to full-time jobs to cover their health insurance.  This also holds true for anyone just starting out, anyone looking to make any kind of life change, or anyone who temporarily falls on hard times.  In each case, the administration’s message is clear: if you’re not stable and established and you fall and break your leg, you’re shit out of luck, son.

Having to rely on a certain kind of job for health insurance makes people more reluctant to quit that job and pursue their passions, meaning we’re going to see fewer people taking that difficult plunge to do the creative work they want to because they’re tied to their health insurance.  This in turn puts us on a fast track to a world where everyone pursues the same goals, lives the same lives, and follows the same path: the go to college, get a high-paying full-time job, buy a car, commute, buy a house, and repeat for forty years path.  There’s not a lot of wiggle room there for living your life on different terms, and it’s a sure thing that people who try are going to be met with resistance, both economic (“Hmmmmm, guess it’s back to ramen noodles for me”) and social (“That’s weird that you want to be a musician.  Where’s the money in that?”).

This trend toward living a predetermined life that excludes people who think differently is part of a larger trend against people who are different for a variety of reasons, including policies like the Muslim ban, anti-LGBTQ legislation, and of course, Trump’s super-expensive nonsensical wall.

In all these cases, the message is clear: if you’re different, we don’t want you.

That’s what I worry about when I read the news.

 

But Back to My News Addiction….

With recent news of the Russsia scandal, FBI Director Comey’s firing, and the first congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment, my news addiction has flared up badly in recent weeks, distracting me from things I need to get done.  In this case, I’m torn: I honestly believe that it’s important to follow the news, but I want to do so responsibly in a way that doesn’t interfere with my other work.

With that in mind, here are some news addiction-reducing tactics I’m going to try over the next few weeks:

 

1. Only Check News at Designated Times

This is a big one.  This week I started setting a specific time each day to check the news—usually around lunchtime after finishing my more intensive creative work, or when I’m on a break during a Day Job shift.  By not simply pulling up social media or news sites whenever the urge strikes me, I limit my impulsive news urges and start reading news in a way that fits my schedule.

2. Avoid Scrolling Through Facebook/Twitter Specifically For News

This is another big one—I often caught myself pulling up social media out of a paranoid fear that something big was going on AT THAT EXACT MOMENT and social media was the only way I could find it out.  Identifying this habit has been the first step toward phasing it out, and I’ve been better about checking social media only in the afternoons and evenings, along with my e-mail.  When I do, I’ve started treating both news and non-news-related items with equal interest, which then makes news a less dominant part of my focus.

3. Recognize Days Where There’s No Real or Pressing News, and Avoid Reading Op-Eds or Stories That Merely Rehash Old Information.

This is smaller, but still really important.  Another of my bad habits was pulling up news sites just for the hell of it and reading any old thing that was political or Trump-related, which rarely yielded any information I didn’t already know.  This is also an easier one to follow-up with, since I’ve gotten better at separating pressing news from regular op-eds.

I’ve also eliminated the latter almost completely from my news diet by raising the bar to only include op-eds that look really, really interesting, like that NY Times article explaining Trump’s victory that I have to recommend a second time because it explains the election results so damned well.

 

So that’s what I’ve been working on lately, and like my challenge to check my email less frequently, I’m really hoping it’s one I can keep up with.  I also expect my news addiction will wind down naturally as Trump’s team continues to struggle, since more internal problems means less gets done, less getting done means less news, and less news means fewer distractions….until the next big scandal, anyway.

Thoughts on excessive news coverage or your own obsessions with checking it?  Let me know in the comments!